Jewish tradition tells us an interesting story.
A Roman woman asked one of our sages: "How many days did it take the Almighty to create the world?"
"Six" he replied.
"So? What's He been doing since then?" she queried.
"Making matches" was the answer.
"That's all", she said. "Even I can do that."
"Although it may seem simple in your eyes, in the eyes of God it is like the splitting of the Red Sea."
Nowhere is this more true than in the case of second marriages. And not only is the marriage itself complicated in deeper and more profound ways than a first marriage, if there are children involved, the couple confronts the unique challenge of stepfamilies.
The second the marriage is always complicated in deeper and more profound ways than a first marriage.
Myriad potential problems surface in stepfamilies. Children may feel responsible and/or guilty for the breakup of the first marriage. The parent may feel humiliated over his/her failure to make the marriage work. Or rejected and insecure. They may expect children to perform adult tasks –- either physically (which isn't so bad) or emotionally (as confidantes, which can be destructive). Children may be confused -– is caring for your stepparent a betrayal of your biological one? Remarriage also marks the loss of hope of reconciliation that most children cherish long past any realistic point.
If there has been a death, the grieving process may not be over. The pain may be longlasting and inform everyone's behavior. Again confusion over issues of disloyalty and betrayal may result.
Finally (though not exhaustively) there are the practical readjustments -– different homes, new siblings, new rules, maybe even new cities, new friends, schools, doctors. Each new aspect is difficult enough on its own and overwhelming cumulatively. No wonder stepparents need help.
Having been reared on "The Brady Bunch", many couples have an unrealistic expectation of the "one big happy family" to come. It's not that it won't come; it's that it will take a lot of time and effort.
Don't let the TV image fool you. The popular phrase "love is blind" is not a Jewish idea. Judaism advocates entering marriage with your eyes wide open, with a clear picture of the challenges confronting you, with expectations grounded in reality not Hollywood. Don't expect magic or overnight miracles. It will take you time, it will take the children time. It may not be "love at first sight."
Let's explore some tools to help ease the transition.
#1: JOIN A SUPPORT GROUP.
One of the most helpful actions stepparents can take is to find a support group. It's painful and alienating to feel alone with your problems. It's an added pressure to harbor the illusion that all is perfect in other homes. All marriages have struggles. All parents have struggles. And all stepparents have even more struggles. That's why it's comforting and nurturing -- and indeed crucial -- to be with others who share your struggles and concerns.
Jacob approached Rabbi Wise after class one evening. "I've been a stepparent for 10 years now. I love my children dearly. But now they're teenagers and they're making me crazy." Rabbi Wise laughed "I'm not a stepparent and I feel the same way. That's what adolescence is like."
Don't magnify your problems. Don't give them greater weight or severity than appropriate. To see that your friends are basically struggling with the same issues is a big relief, not to mention an opportunity to share "what works." Judaism believes in the power of community. Take advantage of it.
#2: GIVE YOUR STEPCHILDREN A LOT OF SPACE.
Don't be on top of them with orders and emotional expectations. The children need to work out their issues and confusions without pressures. They need to know you're available when they're ready -- not when you'd like it to happen. While there should be clear rules for the whole family to abide by, the new parents can't force the relationship. You can't demand love. You have to earn respect. There will be many areas of conflict, many opportunities to feel unloved and unappreciated. You'll hear, "You're not my mother!" Don't give in to the emotion and retaliate. It's a difficult sorting out period. Be available. Be caring. Be firm. But, give space.
#3: INITIALLY, THE BIOLOGICAL PARENT SHOULD DISCIPLINE HIS/HER CHILDREN.
In order not to displace all anger and resentment onto the new parent it is preferable that the biological parent be the primary disciplinarian. This may be a new role for the biological parent. Feeling guilty or pained by the recent circumstances that parent has frequently overcompensated by spoiling the child(ren). But re-establishing boundaries and guidelines is your job, not your new partner's.
If you abdicate that role because it seems easier to let the ("wicked") stepmother or father play it, the long-term consequences, both in your marriage and in your relationship with your children, may prove tragic. You will foster hatred between your children and your spouse leading inevitably to hostility in the marriage.
#4: MAINTAIN APPROPRIATE ROLES.
I've witnessed a common variation of the biological parent's overcompensation.
George, newly divorced, now spends the majority of his time alone with his 10-year-old daughter, Michelle. Wanting to make Michelle feel special (and feeling a little lonely himself), he sits Michelle at the head of the table. He brings her flowers. He waits on her. She has an illusion of adulthood, of being the wife in this family. What happens when a real wife comes along?
If Michelle isn't displaced from this role, it will be disastrous for the marriage. If Michelle is too quickly displaced from this role, her pain and confusion will only deepen. She'll feel abandoned by the one person she trusted.
If you're newly divorced or widowed, try very consciously not to make this mistake. If it's too late (it's never too late!), proceed slowly yet clearly to reverse these roles. Addressing this problem effectively begins with a clear awareness of the mistake. From there you can move on to discussion of the issue with your spouse and work out a plan together for resolving it. Don't be afraid to seek professional help if necessary.
#5: BE PATIENT AND DEMONSTRATE YOU'RE NOT A QUITTER.
One of the most difficult challenges for blended families is building trust. In any marriage, building trust is a long, slow process. If there has been an acrimonious divorce, it will be a longer, slower process. If there are children involved it will be a very long, very slow process. Dig in your heels and wait. Be patient. Show them that you're not going anywhere, not matter how tough it gets.
Whenever the going got rough Mary screamed "I'm outta here", slammed the door and roared away. Her stepchildren took this as permission to ignore and discount her. And Joe, her husband, felt helplessly caught in the middle.
It's very hard to build trust. The majority of the effort has to be made by the adults. The children are very fragile. If you're not there for them, you can be certain they won't be there for you.
Take pleasure in your ability to remain calm. The Chofetz Chaim suggested that we frequently lose our patience because we have a very limited short-term vision. If we keep focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, instead of the darkness at the beginning, we have much greater chance of success.
#6: KEEP PRAYING AND KEEP LAUGHING.
Yet another potential obstacle to Brady Bunch-like harmony is the intensified sibling rivalry –- between the biological siblings and then between the sets of new siblings. There is no magic potion that makes this go away. You need to respond to children according to their needs not demands.
Don't let guilt pressure you into making the wrong decision. You need a sense of humor. You need to throw up your hands and pray "Almighty, we're outnumbered, please give us a hand."
Sit down with your spouse. Clarify your goals. Acknowledge the roadblocks. Be sensitive to the obstacles. Write down your plans. Draw up a list of house rules. Ask God to help you. Move slowly. Take pleasure in each small step of growth. You can wait. You're preparing for eternity.